The CTS-V is a brilliant handler, and it is in some ways the rawest performance car of the group. It is happy to kick its tail out, sometimes unexpectedly, but overall its handling is neutral, reasonably well-damped, and extremely capable. On the track, the linear torque curve and relatively narrow rear tires made throttle steering fun and easy. Turn-in is crisp and precise, and the steering weights up naturally and offers good feedback. The ride is stiff but, like the M3, it never feels punishing unless the roads are seriously pockmarked.
And, oh, that engine; your torque is served, sir. This V-8 has the twist to back up its ferocious roar. The exhaust is plenty aggressive when you're on the loud pedal but never boomy when you're tooling around. Acceleration is tremendous at any speed in most any gear. The CTS-V's engine barking through the gears says "badass American muscle" louder than any testosterone-filled truck commercial ever could.
The CTS-V has an axle tramp problem, and it can be quite frustrating. Wheel spin excites the back of the car like a heroin addict with the DTs. And like a heroin addict, we couldn't resist trying to burn out repeatedly. It always ended the same way: passengers terrified of the bucking, and forward progress retarded by lack of tire contact. Cadillac sent us an early-production 2005 CTS-V because its engineers have refined the rear end to lessen the wheel-hop problem. The situation is better but not yet solved.
The CTS-V excels when driven aggressively and only falls short in terms of ultimate refinement. Its interior looks inoffensive enough - until you see the high-quality switchgear and materials in the German cars. The Cadillac's cabin has sloppily designed molded plastic, junky-feeling control stalks, garish fonts, and too many ill-conceived seams and visible mold lines. Why must there be a two-millimeter black hole around every button in which it can wiggle whenever you press it? The BMW and Audi buttons offer crisp, precise action. The CTS-V's lack of precision doesn't end there. Its transmission is muscled into gear, not shifted elegantly. The seating is fine but doesn't offer the support-either lateral or lumbar-of the other cars. The engine sounds a lot like it does in the Corvette Z06; it belts out a mean rumble but it is more Metallica than the Audi's Brahms or the BMW's Moby.
Cadillac tried hard with the CTS-V, and it shows, but it isn't the M3's equal in its overall refinement. BMW has perfected its cars to greatness not through magic (though it sometimes seems like it), but through dedication to developing a recipe over the long haul. Not counting the 1997-2001 Catera, a glorified Opel brought to the U.S. as an entry-level model, Cadillac just rediscovered rear-wheel-drive cars one year ago, so it does seem a bit much to expect the division to have a car that is BMW's equal already. The significance of the Cadillac being competitive in this test cannot be overstated. If Cadillac engineers refine the next CTS-V with a (much) nicer interior, a Northstar engine, and a less truck-like transmission, they may have a true world beater on their hands. They're that close.